Famous Women Blues Singers
This article provides information about famous women blues singers, and while there are quite a few of them, All Your Jazz has made a list of the most famous and prominent of them.
1. Ruth Brown
Born: January 1, 1928, Portsmouth, Virginia
Ruth Brown’s smooth vocals made the rhythm and blues charts regularly between 1949 and 1955, and helped a then-fledgling Atlantic Records establish itself as a formidable presence in the R&B world. Later in her long and versatile career she became known as a rock and roll and pop singer as well as a stage and film actress, winning a Tony award on Broadway. She has influenced many R&B and soul artists, and her enduring talent is evidenced by her recent solo recordings and guest appearances with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland and B.B. King, as well as a Grammy win in the late 1980s. Brown continues to perform.
Essential listening: “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” “Teardrops From My Eyes,” “Don’t Deceive Me,” “Mambo Baby”
2. Shemekia Copeland
Born: 1979, New York, New York
Shemekia Copeland began appearing on stage with her father, Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, as a child, and as a teenager she toured with him as his opening act, stunning audiences with a confident stage presence which seemed to belie her youth. Her vocal prowess matches her charisma as a performer. At the age of 19, Copeland released her debut album, inspiring comparisons to blues legends Etta James and Koko Taylor. By 2002 Copeland had released two more albums to critical acclaim, and won three of the blues’ prestigious W.C. Handy awards. She has worked with Ruth Brown, one of her original influences, as well as Dr. John and others.
Essential listening: “The Other Woman,” “I Always Get My Man,” “Have Mercy,” “Your Mama’s Talking,” “Not Tonight,” “The Push I Need”
3. Ida Cox
Born: February 25, 1896, Toccoa, Georgia
Died: November 10, 1967, Knoxville, Tennessee
Also known as: Ida Prather
Ida Cox was one of the great 1920s blues singers. She began her career as a teenager, traveling throughout the south as a singer with tent and vaudeville shows. Cox was also a versatile businesswoman — for a time she ran her own touring company, working as a producer and manager as well as performer. She was a prolific and popular recording artist throughout the 1920s who wrote many of her own songs, one of which is the well-known “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” Cox tended to direct her shows toward black female audiences, with songs that examined various issues from a female perspective. Cox’s career was active throughout the 1930s, when health problems reportedly forced her into retirement, although she did manage an additional recording session in the early 1960s.
Essential listening: “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” “Last Mile Blues,” “Pink Slip Blues,” “Cemetery Blues”
4. Billie Holiday
Born: April 7, 1915, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: July 17, 1959, New York, New York
Also known as: Eleanora Fagan Gough
Billie Holiday was a legendary vocalist whose uncompromising artistry and highly original, personalized style — which included an innovative sense of phrasing, rhythm and harmony — has had a tremendous impact on generations of vocalists from all genres. Holiday’s life was fraught with difficulty, which may be why she was able to sing the blues so convincingly. A huge part of her appeal was her ability to convey the meaning of the lyrics, giving the impression that she had lived her material. Holiday has acknowledged Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as two of her primary influences, and during her career she worked with legends Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. Among her many classic recordings are the disturbingly evocative “Strange Fruit,” which controversially addressed the violence of racism, and her own composition “God Bless the Child.”
Essential listening: “Lover Man,” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “Good Morning Heartache”
5. Bonnie Raitt
Born: November 8, 1949
An accomplished slide guitarist and blues singer/songwriter, Bonnie Raitt incongruously dropped out of an Ivy League college to work as an itinerant blues musician. Her considerable skill made an impression on Boston’s blues scene, and she quickly won the respect of her peers, later playing with blues legends Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Muddy Waters, and others. Raitt began recording to critical acclaim in the early seventies, mixing blues with R&B, pop, jazz and New Orleans influences and garnering a loyal cult following. Like her female predecessors, her music often features a gender-specific spin on the blues; her original interpretation of Chris Smither’s “Love Me Like a Man” contains a clever response to Muddy Waters’s “Rock Me,” and her rendition of Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise” likewise offers a refreshing female perspective. In the eighties Raitt’s career slowed somewhat until the release of the aptly-titled Nick of Time in 1989, at which point, in the words of blues historian Robert Santelli, she “pulled off one of the greatest career turnarounds in modern pop history.”* Raitt received six Grammy awards for the album, and followed it up with another Grammy-winner in 1992. She continues to record and tour.
Essential listening: “Love Me Like a Man,” “Give It Up or Let Me Go,” “Women Be Wise,” “Walking Blues,” “Feeling of Falling”
6. Bessie Smith
Born: April 15, 1894, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Died: September 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Bessie Smith’s talent as a vocalist is legendary and she has influenced generations of blues singers, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin. She was enormously successful throughout the twenties as a blues and sometimes jazz singer, and beyond that she was an inspiration to the black community, as she lived her life with confidence and uncompromising self-respect, on no one’s terms but her own. This self-assurance was part of the appeal of her rich, expressive vocals. Smith sometimes wrote her own material, such as “Back Water Blues.” Her career was impacted by the Depression, as were the careers of many artists, but she continued to perform. She was probably on the verge of a comeback, reportedly having been scheduled to play Carnegie Hall at John Hammond’s legendary concert “From Spirituals to Swing,” when she was killed in a car accident in 1937.
Essential recordings: “Lost Your Head Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” “Back Water Blues,” “Broken Hearted Blues”
7. Mamie Smith
Born: May 26, 1883, Cincinnati, Ohio
Died: October 30, 1946, New York, New York
Mamie Smith was primarily a cabaret and vaudeville singer, but she made blues history by being the first singer to record a blues song. “Crazy Blues,” recorded in 1920, was a huge hit, selling more than one million copies within a year of its release. This success inspired the release of further blues recordings by female artists. So, although Mamie Smith technically wasn’t a blues singer, she was a groundbreaking and influential artist for the genre. Her majestic stage presence and ornate costumes and jewelry also influenced other female blues singers of the twenties.
Essential listening: “Crazy Blues,” “It’s Right Here for You,” “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” “That Thing Called Love”
8. Victoria Spivey
Born: October 15, 1906, Houston, Texas
Died: October 3, 1976, New York, New York
Victoria Spivey’s career lasted much longer than that of most other female blues singers of the 1920s. She was a clever songwriter who unflinchingly addressed diverse topics, and as a vocalist her delivery of the blues was sincere and convincing. Spivey started out as a performer in Houston, and is rumored to have played with Blind Lemon Jefferson. For a time she worked as a songwriter for the St. Louis Music Company, and later was based in New York, where she performed constantly. Spivey was artistically influenced by blues great Ida Cox, and she may have also been influenced by her on a more practical level — both women are reputed to have had formidable business acumen. Spivey took a hiatus from music during the fifties, but managed a comeback in the early sixties, starting her own record company just in time for the mid-sixties blues revival to breathe new life into her career as a performer. She released predominantly classic blues on her record label, and continued to tour until her death in 1976.
Essential listening: “Dope Head Blues,” “Black Snake Blues,” TB Blues,” “Organ Grinder Blues”
9. Koko Taylor
Born: September 28, 1935, Memphis, Tennessee
Died: June 3, 2009, Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: Cora Walton
Koko Taylor is a living testament to blues history and can still belt out a song as powerfully and joyfully as ever. A warm, charismatic performer, she has been the undisputed Queen of Chicago Blues for decades, and her reign is still going strong. Taylor’s career began after she and her husband moved from Memphis to Chicago, where they frequented the local blues clubs. Once she began sitting in with bands it quickly became obvious she could hold her own not only among female vocalists, but with any of the male heavy hitters, such as contemporaries Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Among her fans was blues great Willie Dixon, who was instrumental in the advancement of her career. Her recording of his original song “Wang Dang Doodle” climbed the rhythm and blues charts, was a million-plus seller, and remains one of her classics. For almost 20 years running she garnered the pretigious W.C. Handy Award. A legend in her own right, she has been compared to blues greats Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. In the late 1980s Taylor overcame health challenges and adversity to maintain her reputation as a performer and recording artist of passionate, soulful blues.
Essential listening: “I’m A Woman,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “What Kind of Man is This,” “I Got What it Takes”
10. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born: March 20, 1921, Cotton Plant, Arkansas
Died: October 9, 1973, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Sister Rosetta Tharpe mastered the guitar by the age of 6, and grew up singing gospel with her mother. Tharpe was a riveting performer with a flair for showmanship and a definite blues influence in her phrasing and musicianship. She signed a recording contract with Decca while still a teenager and her recordings were huge hits. Tharpe’s talent and appeal were so outrageous and contagious that it was inevitable her talents would one day extend beyond the gospel community. Her later career embodied the early, ongoing battle between sacred music and a more secular sound — a struggle that many black artists from the gospel tradition have had to face. Eventually Tharpe caused great controversy in the gospel community and lost much of her loyal audience when she recorded pure blues in the early 1950s (along with gospel artist Madame Marie Knight). It took about a decade before Tharpe made her way back to acceptance from the gospel community. She continued to tour until her death in 1973.
Essential listening: “Rock Me,” “This Train,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Didn’t it Rain,” “Up Above My Head”
11. Big Mama Thornton
Born: December 11, 1926, Montgomery, Alabama
Died: July 25, 1984, Los Angeles, California
Also known as: Willie Mae Thornton
Big Mama Thornton was a great blues vocalist in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and Ma Rainey, and was also a drummer and harmonica player. She had considerable success with her 1953 recording of “Hound Dog,” which reached number 1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for seven weeks. (Three years later the song was immortalized by Elvis Presley.) Thornton began her professional singing career at the age of 14, touring the South with the Hot Harlem Revue. She later moved to Houston, Texas where she did some recording and worked with Johnny Otis and Junior Parker, among others. In the early sixties she settled in San Francisco, playing in local blues clubs as well as touring with blues festivals. Thornton continued to perform until her death in 1984. Among her recordings is “Ball ‘n Chain,” recorded in 1965, which Janis Joplin covered three years later.
Essential listening: “Hound Dog,” “Ball and Chain,” “Just Like a Dog,” “I Smell a Rat,” “Stop Hoppin’ on Me”
12. Cassandra Wilson
Born: December 4, 1955, Jackson, Mississippi
Cassandra Wilson is primarily known as an accomplished jazz singer, although her stunning full, low voice and skill as a songwriter have encompassed other genres, and she has been heavily influenced by the musical traditions of the south, including the Delta blues. She cites the complexity of Robert Johnson’s songwriting, guitar work and vocal delivery as one of her primary influences. Wilson is a prolific recording artist, and has followed up her 1985 debut with almost one album each year, and sometimes two. Her body of work includes acoustic blues, folk, jazz, and funk. Wilson’s 1999 release, Traveling Miles, was a tribute to Miles Davis. She has toured with Wynton Marsalis. Her critically-acclaimed recent release, Belly of the Sun, was recorded in Mississippi with both her own band and local musicians and combines funk, pop and rock with a tribute to pure Delta blues.
Essential listening: “You Move Me,” “Round Midnight,” “Darkness on the Delta,” “You Gotta Move,” “Hot Tamales”
13. Etta James
Born: January 25, 1938, Los Angeles, California
Singing with a vocal trio called the Peaches while in her early teens, James was discovered early in her career by R&B band leader Johnny Otis, with whom she wrote her first hit “Roll With Me.” She became a mainstay of Otis’ revue through the mid-’50s, recording the hit “Good Rockin’ Daddy” in 1955. In 1960 she moved over to Chess Records’ Argo subsidiary, and the hits kept coming. While scoring and recording, she also sang background vocals on Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown” and “Back in the U.S.A.” Though she faced difficult times from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s as a result of a heroin addiction, she still managed to produce at least three major hits. Throughout her career, she managed to turn out well over a dozen great hits, and she remains a predominant figure in jazz and blues, recording and performing to an ever-increasing audience and critical acclaim. She won her first Grammy in 1994 for Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday, and she has since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Essential listening: “Good Rockin’ Daddy,” “Dance With Me Henry,” “At Last,” “Trust in Me,” “Tell Mama,” “I’ve Found A Love,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Album – Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday
I Can’t Be Satisfied: Early American Women Blues Singers – Town & Country, Vol. 2 – Town
Approximately 68 min. Remastered sound. This is the second volume of female singers from Yazoo Records from the 1920′s,and is equal to the first. These tracks cover a more big-city sound of blues singing. The first volume had a rural feel to it. This album has a more sophisticated sound,both in the style of singing and the arrangements. The subject matter, however, has not changed all that much from the first volume. Taken together,these two volumes make up an important area of blues singing that doesn’t receive a lot of attention. If you don’t own this,your blues library is incomplete.
Listen to Samples from both albums